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Ohio State is already a top contender for the Big Ten title

With a consistently outstanding recruiting pipeline and a fine-tuned coaching staff, the Buckeyes are already front runners in the Big Ten.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

“When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus.”

-Austin Ward, ESPN

The Ohio State Buckeyes are an obvious contender to win the Big Ten this season. Despite losing in the semi-finals of the College Football Playoff last year, the Buckeyes have a wealth of returning talent and a high-caliber coaching staff that could boost them back into national contention come the fall.

For starters, Urban Meyer has established a recruiting machine in Columbus with a talented pipeline of four- and five-star talent. Last season, Meyer was forced to use a number of these recruits right off the bat, given the departure of a dozen players for the NFL Draft last spring. This year, however, Meyer and his coaching staff have a wealth of veteran talent to draw from, and have the opportunity to develop the freshman class for years to come.

In terms of veteran players, none has had more of an impact in his time at Ohio State than quarterback J.T. Barrett. Entering his senior season with the Buckeyes, Barrett has already broken most major program passing records in his three years as a starter. Now, with new co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day and a slew of talent at receiver, Barrett is already in a better position with his offense than he was leading into last season. And along with Day, Kevin Wilson’s arrival as co-offensive coordinator means tons of potential from a talented offense, especially given what Wilson was able to do at Indiana with less-talented personnel there.

On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes bring an absolutely loaded front seven on defense. While the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan to the NFL Draft leaves a void, Chris Worley looks to be a worthy replacement. On the line, the Buckeyes return Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa--a formidable front-four.

Finally, Meyer himself is perhaps the most obvious reason that the Buckeyes have a shot at title contention this year. He has lost just six games in five years at Ohio State, and has been able to consistently improve recruiting and fine-tune the coaching staff to achieve results in Columbus.

“It’s not different. Really it wasn’t Luke (Fickell) and I bouncing (of of each other), it was all four of us--always.”

-Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, via Bill Landis,

The defensive coaching staff at Ohio State has been a highly-collaborative coaching unit under Urban Meyer’s leadership. While the unit has traditionally boasted a pair of co-defensive coordinators, similar to Meyer’s structure on offense, the void left by Luke Fickell’s departure to Cincinnati means that Greg Schiano is currently the only defensive coordinator on the coaching staff. Still, the daily operations of the staff have remained the same, with Schiano working closely with Kerry Coombs on cornerbacks and special teams, Billy Davis on linebackers and Larry Johnson on the defensive line. Of the three, Davis is the only new face on the defensive coaching staff this season, having spent nearly his entire career coaching in the NFL.

While the operations remain the same as they did when Fickell was on the staff, potential promotions, new titles and higher salaries are all at stake in the new void, and one of the three defensive assistants could earn the title of “co-defensive coordinator” by the start of the season. Coombs, who has the longest tenure on the defensive staff, would seem the most obvious candidate. Despite rumors that he would be leaving Columbus to join Fickell, Coombs announced in December that he would be sticking around at Ohio State. Meyer then responded with a statement that Coombs would “have a much expanded role” and “more responsibility on the back end of our defense.” Given his ability to recruit and develop talent like Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore, Coombs, whose contract is up in April, could be in for a pay raise.

Even so, Davis, with his NFL experience, is also a worthy candidate of the increased title and responsibility that would come with a co-defensive coordinator role. And Johnson has, according to Schiano, has declined coordinator jobs elsewhere. Meyer has three outstanding options, should he choose to stay with his traditional coaching structure on defense, but it is safe to assume that the on-field result will remain top-notch regardless.

“I think when the winter workouts came and the grind came, it was about the guys. I think my class, we love Ohio State. We love this team.”

-Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, via Eric Seger, Eleven Warriors

There are not often many fifth-year seniors on Urban Meyer-coached teams. This year, however, is an exception, as seven players on the roster prepare for their fifth and final season with the Buckeyes. Chief among the group are quarterback J.T. Barrett, defensive end Tyquan Lewis and offensive lineman Billy Price, all of whom were named captains for the coming season. Linebacker Chris Worley, tight end Marcus Baugh and defensive tackles Tracy Sprinkly and Mike Hill round out the group.

It is a surprising return for several members of the group, given that six members of the team declared for the NFL Draft at the end of the season as underclassmen. Especially given success of former Buckeyes at the next level, including many who left Columbus early, foregoing lucrative contracts to stay in school another year is unexpected.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this group to return was how their last game ended--a 31-0 loss to Clemson on the national stage in the Fiesta Bowl. “I just think there was unfinished business with a lot of guys,” Price said. “None of us liked the way we went out. You can’t leave on a mark like that. You leave your legacy with your last game playing at Ohio State and just the way we went out is not acceptable to a lot of the guys who are coming back.”

Meyer will be leaning on this core group of seniors both through spring practice and moving on to the start of the season. Especially given significant coaching changes on both sides of the ball, these established leaders will play a crucial role in “refreshing” the program. And according to Barrett, this group is already committed: “We want to do the best for Ohio State and make sure we end the season on top. I think that’s our focus.”

Ohio State moved up in the rankings of a number of sports this weekend, earning the top spot in the first release of the NCAA’s men’s volleyball RPI rankings, as well as moving up to No. 4 in Inside Lacrosse’s men’s lacrosse rankings (up 13 spots from last week).

Other ranked in-season programs include:

  • Women’s rowing (#1, central region)
  • Men’s tennis (#2)
  • Women’s tennis (#2)
  • Men’s gymnastics (#3)
  • Fencing (#7)
  • Men’s ice hockey (#14)